Fame Vs. Ability by Roy Burns

Is the most famous drummer necessarily the best drummer? It’s an age-old question and one not easily answered. On the one hand, the argument is that the most well known drummers are the best, which is why they are so well known. The other pint of view is that fame has more to do with being in a popular band than it does with the drummer’s ability.

Drummers are happy to point out excellent players ho are well respected by musicians, yet remain relatively unknown to the public. A great many studio drummers could fall into this category- although the relatively recent practice of listing the personnel on each recording has gained many studio drummers a certain measure of fame.

For years, one of the best-kept secrets in the music business was Alan Dawson, who still lives, teaches and plays in Boston. Alan is a superb musician and teacher, yet for years, people outside of Boston were unaware of his talents. But after Tony Williams- Alan’s most famous student- burst upon the scene at age seventeen with the late Miles Davis, drummers were suddenly heading for Boston to study with Alan. It also seemed that he was suddenly in more demand for clinics, recordings and the like. The point is Alan was a very accomplished professional long before the drumming world “discovered” his presence.

At the International Music Fair in Frankfurt, Germany last year, I met a drummer named Fernando Bermundez. Fernando is originally from Argentina but he’s now living in Spain and he’s become a very experienced drummer. He plays rock, jazz flamenco, Latin, salsa, funk, fusion and big band, and is an outstanding drummer by any standards. If he were playing and recoding in the U.S., he would, in my opinion, be a famous drummer. His tremendous versatility would make him a studio favorite. His only limitation – as far as world recognition goes – is that he plays only in Europe.

Noel Okimoto is, by almost universal agreement, the best drummer in Hawaii. He has accompanied many great artists, including Henry Mancini, Natalie Cole, Barney Kessel, Sadao Watanabe, Richie Cole and Stan Getz. He also plays all the percussion instruments and often performs, only as a percussionist. In fact, his only limitation-at least where fame is concerned- is that he lives in Hawaii.

Why do such great players go unnoticed for years, while others-some great, some not-achieve fame? I think it has to do with the good fortune (or lack of it) to be part of a group that attracts the attention of the world at large. A classic example is Ringo Starr. I mean no disrespect for Ringo but I really doubt that he would be a famous name today if not for the Beatles connection. Please, all you Ringo fans don’t get excited. After all, Ringo did play the music the way the group wanted, so he certainly deserves some credit. But the fact is that the Beatles’ popularity as a band allowed Ring’s talents as a drummer to have extremely high visibility.

Who knows? If it weren’t for Gene Krupa joining up with Benny Goodman, the entire drumming community might be different today. Gene’s feature drum solo “Sing, Sing, Sing” is still heard today on radio and as background music for TV commercials. In a very real sense, The Benny Goodman Band launched Gene to international fame.

It seems that every great drummer, like every actor, needs the “right part,” or vehicle, in order to become famous. Prior to the hit TV show “All In The Family”, Caroll O’Connor was considered an accomplished actor. However, his “Archie Bunker” character on that show catapulted him to international stardom and he is a television regular today, twenty years later.

So, in order to be famous, you need ability, experience, desire, originality and-most of all- that “great vehicle.” You need the right band at the right time.

It seems to me that all you can do is give it your best shot. If you are talented and fortunate, fame could happen to you. However, keep in mind that there will always be great players deserving more recognition than they actually receive and you may be one of them. All I can say is that if you are a good player and you get the big break, be grateful because it doesn’t always happen. There are many great drummers who have not been fortunate enough to become famous…. yet!